- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

When Virginia Gov. James Gilmore announced that he intended to stand by his promise to phase out the commonwealth's tax on cars, he did so knowing that he hadn't exactly beggared Virginia's government in the meantime. State spending is up $4 billion or 42 percent just since 1997. Spending on roads and education has gone up even more.

But if he thought that record might make tax cuts more palatable to his critics, he couldn't have been more wrong. The teachers union was so critical of his plans to proceed with the phase-out, that one would have thought the governor had just announced its members could no longer send their children to private schools.

The Senate was so unhappy over the plan that it blocked approval of a state budget rather sign onto one that accommodated the governor and the voters who elected him. Sen. John Chichester, Republican of Stafford and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, left the state capitol muttering warnings about cuts in essential state services. The Washington Post warned that the cuts could be "harsh and far-reaching." No mention, of course, about how reneging on the car tax cut might affect the people who always have to pick up the check the taxpayers.

What's going on in Virginia right now is an object lesson, not just for residents of the commonwealth, but for a man with plans for a phased-in tax cut himself, President Bush. That lesson goes back more than 200 years, and greater men than Messrs. Gilmore and Bush have confronted it. "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men," wrote James Madison, "the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next instance oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

After two centuries, scholars are still seeking the kind of auxiliary precautions that would protect the governed from the insatiable appetite of government to enlarge itself in power and in means. Mr. Bush himself acknowledged the problem when he said that making tax cuts conditional on the well-being of the budget would simply be an excuse for the government to spend money until the budget isn't "well." If you don't send the money back to the people who earned it now, there will never be anything left over for them afterward.

In his speech Tuesday, therefore, Mr. Bush asked Congress to commit itself this year to giving them a refund. But like Mr. Gilmore, Mr. Bush won't be around to see the plan through. It's a 10-year tax cut, and he will be around only eight at the most and perhaps only four. That's a problem because the only auxiliary protection in this case is sheer political will. Even while Mr. Bush is in office, as Mr. Gilmore has learned, there will be cries to scale back the tax cut. Erstwhile Republican allies, aspiring to statesmanship, will announce the government doesn't have the luxury of returning tax dollars to the people who earned them given the needs of museums, parks and other interests back home. (It turns out that one of the "essential" services now threatened with cutbacks in Virginia is the Science Museum of Virginia.) No matter the increase in spending, remember, it's never enough.

Mr. Bush also comes to the fight without some of Mr. Gilmore's advantages. The General Assembly meets at most two months a year whereas Congress meets year-round. It's a lot easier to organize opposition when everyone is in town than it is when lawmakers are back in their home districts. Second, Mr. Gilmore targeted a highly visible, highly regressive and much despised levy on cars for which people had to stop and write an annual check. Thanks to the wonders of federal withholding, most Americans don't have to stop and write that check to cover their income taxes. The money is gone even before they get their check.

Still, like Ronald Reagan, the cheerful Mr. Bush has the ability to put his political agenda in a moral perspective that Americans can easily understand. Arguing for the rate reductions, he described the case of a waitress making $25,000 annually whose overtime the government taxed at a rate of 50 percent. "This sends a terrible message: You will never get ahead," Mr. Bush said. "… America's message must be different: We must honor hard work, never punish it. With tax relief, overtime will no be longer overtax time for the waitress."

It will always be overtax time if public officials insist on feeding the government. Mr. Bush has a diet plan in the works. If Americans respond to the president's moral vision, the feds may yet have to live on it.

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